Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Catch of the Day

It’s 7 a.m. I make a carafe of coffee and turn CNN on. I check my email account and then pour my first cup. As I prepare to start my day, I hear some excited voices coming from the backyard. I go out on my back balcony and see Coco and his sister Yvette, the fisherman’s children who live across the street. Spike, Elizabeth’s dog, is barking with excitement. The children are visibly expressive and their happiness is contagious; at least for a moment.

“What are you doing?” I see a large white bucket and some boxes made of wood. Coco responds by holding up the white bucket. Inside is a very large crab. Yvette says, “We caught it!” Knowing its destiny is the dinner table and knowing it is a feeble, na├»ve, unrealistic city-viewed attempt, I said, “Ah, you aren’t going to hurt it are you?” They looked at me quizzically as though they couldn’t understand the question I just asked. Then Coco smiled as if I just made a funny joke. I didn’t press for an answer.

“How did you catch it?” Yvette points to the wooden boxes. “What do you use to lure it in?” Coco says, “banana, they like bananas”. The crab will bring the family $10.00 from some hungry person seeking the crustacean delicacy. I watch as they prepare to catch their next victim.

They re-set the traps, leaving with their catch and undoubtedly proud to show their father, a village fisherman. I can only imagine the pride these children must have felt when they presented that big crab to their father. The children will set traps throughout the week filling the three cages in their backyard. Their father will take the filled cages to Martinique.

So, here are two opposite reactions largely due to culture. I am horrified to think this large old creature will end up on a dinner plate satisfying a moment of pleasure for a hungry diner, while the children’s father will feel a sense of pride that his children are learning a trade that will sustain them throughout their life.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Unanswered Questions

It happened again. It happens more often than it should. He lay dying in his hospital bed. Just a few days ago he was young, healthy and lively. I’ve seen him around the village. I don’t know the details; I can only imagine. His family helpless, shocked and grieving gathered around his bed awaiting his fate. There is nothing that can be done. They can try to control his pain as his organs shut down, but even that is difficult.

I wonder if he had regrets. Was this simply a cry for help gone wrong? If he could take it back, would he? Is he selfish as many might think, or is he in so much pain that even more compassion is needed? How does one make sense of this sort of act? I knew people who took their lives and I have so many questions; it’s confusing. The people I knew used methods that were quick; the last was a friend who pulled a trigger. One second he was here and the next he was gone.

In developing countries, suicide is often an over-dose of prescription medication. In under-developed nations, Gramaxone, an agriculture poison is the leading method of suicide.

According to the World Health Organization, each year nearly 900,000 deaths worldwide are due to suicide, which accounts for more deaths than homicides and wars combined. This number is believed to be largely underestimated because suicide as a cause of death is underreported. Worldwide, pesticide poisoning accounts for over 250,000 deaths each year. There’s nothing more that I can think of to say.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Secrets, Sights and Sounds

A few mornings ago, I was awakened to wailing screaming sounds. It was deeply disturbing to me. It didn’t sound human. There was nothing I could do but shut my window and turn on my fan to drawn out the sounds. Later, Angelina confirmed what I already knew.

It’s been raining for a few days. The rain pounds on the aluminum roofs. It’s deafening at times. I still get slightly alarmed because what is weather-as-usual here is not in Los Angeles. When I woke today, there were still black clouds in the sky. It rained on and off all night. One last downpour and it seemed to be over for awhile.

I took a shower and grabbed my keys. It was time for a morning walk. I walked near the sea where the fishermen bring in the catch of the day. It’s still early and no fish are available yet. While the conch shells are silenced this morning, they will be singing through the village later this afternoon when fishermen announce their catch. I stopped to talk to an elderly woman sitting on her porch. She was pleasant and friendly.

I have another secret. I’ve never felt a connection to the elderly; but it’s different here. The pace is slower and I have patience while they find the right words to express what they want to say. I have the time to answer their curious questions about me. I listen to them tell me wonderful stories about the village and their country. This is something I will take back with me.

Walking along the shore I see a huge black cauldron pot on a fire. The cauldron is big enough to fit a whole person into it. Steam is rising and there is an unidentifiable smell in the air. The cauldron is outside a brick building with large openings, but no glass or doors. It’s a structure that looks half finished. And then I saw it. The remains of a pig, its carcass hanging in two pieces. I don’t even want to know what’s in the pot. Now I understand. This slaughterhouse is only a block from my house. Angelina confirmed that they were slaughtering a pig that morning. I don’t know why I haven’t heard it before.

I haven’t eaten anything other than chicken and fish for twenty years and even that is eaten only on occasion. I’m lucky that I got an assignment where vegetarianism is accepted and understood and most of the time valued. I hear the cries of the past morning in my head. I am sad. But I understand it. I also smile because my view is so far from reality.

I finish my walk, saying hello to each passerby. Many stop to have a short conversation. One woman says, “I don’t have to ask if you are alright because you are walking”. I pass by children sitting on the porch playing a not-so-friendly and very serious game of dominoes, the national pastime. I hear the sounds of Reggae Music, mostly Duane Stephenson, coming from homes and establishments.

As I walk through the village I think about these small moments I enjoy, many of which I journal and some of which end up as a new post in my blog. When my boys were here, I didn’t notice many small moments. There was too much to do, too much to catch up on and just not enough time to focus on the little things. It is good to be with people and activities and life’s bustle. It’s also good to be alone, free to think to slow down and to catch a glimpse at the things I may have otherwise missed.

Sunday, April 19, 2009

The Fountain of Youth

I have found the Fountain of Youth, an alternate answer to the Biggest Loser, the gym and liposuction. It’s Peace Corps. My clothes hang on me and that makes me smile. Although I have no scale, I’m sure I must have lost at least twenty-five or thirty pounds so far! I fantasize about looking like that twenty something person again . . . the person who was critical of how she looked and found bulges of fat among her ninety-eight pounds. This time I will not be critical; instead I will be grateful. Maybe I will get some skinny jeans and a midriff top for my new body.

But on closer inspection I find some of the clothes I wear here are things I wouldn’t want to wear to my own cremation. I brought nice things; some I’ve had for years. My Jones of NY pants are years old but good enough to pass for the required “business casual” dictated by Peace Corps. The pants were in good condition when I left. Now, the cuffs are frayed and I fear they only have a short-time left on this journey. The same is true for some of my brand new tops, many of which have small, but growing holes in the material.

On further inspection I notice that the neck lines of my tops are growing – as I look in the mirror I see the necklines sagging. My crewneck tops now resemble V-Necks. The tops are much wider than I remember. Oh no, there is no Fountain and my perfect body resides in my private Fantasy Land!

I need to return to Saint Lucia reality. To my horror, I face the truth. Oh great, gravity is not only attacking my body, but now my clothes. Where is the Fountain of Youth when I need it? Oh yes, it’s back home in the Botox bottles and in the surgical rooms.

I realize it is only an illusion that I will be returning to my former twenty-something body. I’ve identified the villain in this tale. It’s the clothes washing process. Oh no, I just thought of something – maybe my clothes are adjusting to the “me” I am destined to become. Sagging, stretched, faded and torn. I will fight this! I need to go shopping . . . quick! I’ll put the skinny jean idea aside and look for a good sturdy pair of Levi Relaxed Jeans.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

The Country

“If anyone starves in Saint Lucia then they are really stupid.” I hear that quite often. When I walk through the forest there are almonds, oranges, and golden apples rotting on the ground. Saint Lucians don’t like to waste food, but sometimes it can’t be helped.

Bea, Neil and Neema picked us up early on Sunday morning. Jay and Kevin jumped in the back of the truck and Bea motioned me to the cab. She and Neil were my host family and she remembered it is against Peace Corps policy for me to ride in the back of a pick up truck.

Their countryside farm is just a short ride from the village. We turned off the main highway and drove through acres of banana trees until we finally reached their farm. Cam, their worker, was already there. There was a fire started by the small banana processing shed. There were pots and dishes and utensils. We were there to have lunch, but first we needed to collect the food.

Bea directed the worker to dig up dasheen, sweet potatoes, and other root vegetables. Then she asked him to get some coconuts. Jay commented on the obvious class structure. Bea and Neil, by Saint Lucian standards, are middle class. They employ several workers, both for her catering business and their farm. The farm supplies food for her catering business as well as for her family. They also grow enough bananas to make a small profit each year. Lately the cost of living has increased. Chicken, cheese and other items she must buy are more expensive. It is becoming increasingly difficult for her to make a profit.

We piled into the pick up truck. Cam was looking for the perfect tree to climb. He explained that he needed to find a short tree because fewer coconuts would burst open when they hit the ground. I watched as Cam wiped off the bottom of his feet and then began the ascent to the top of the tree. Second’s later coconut after coconut was falling from the tree.

We hiked a short distance to retrieve some grapefruits and then went in search for oranges. Along the way we found a cocoa tree and picked a few pods, one of which we broke open and ate. Neema saw a few bananas that were ripened on the tree and pulled them off handing me a couple. I’ve never tasted better bananas than those here in Saint Lucia.

When we got back we ate bowls of freshly picked and cooked vegetables with saltfish and fresh coconut juice. This kind of experience is pretty amazing to a city girl.

A few days later Neil and Bea came by to say goodbye to Jay and Kevin. Of course, they agreed to hold our Flat friends.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

I’m Leaving Saint Lucia!

It’s time to leave this island! Well, sort of leaving. My sons and I decided to explore two of the surrounding islands in the Eastern Caribbean. We traveled in a large catamaran. And, actually I’m back now and their vacation is over.

The sea was very rough and people are screaming as they would while riding a roller-coaster. Anyone who decides to leave their seat does so at their own risk. People are thrown about like paper in a sudden windstorm. One man sits on a platform outside on the deck during the ride. He is wearing a motorcycle jacket and sunglasses and looking very cool. It was hard to understand why he isn’t bounced from his perch and left screaming in fear in the ocean waters. Instead, while others leave their seats and fight to stay on their feet, he is Mr. Cool, enjoying the ride.

Martinique is owned by France and it has all the characteristics of a little Paris; including the food. The pastries and freshly brewed espressos are amazing. I decide tasting these pastries is worth the price of the fare.

The streets have character and remind me of France. People tell us they don’t want Martinique’s independence from France.

A month ago, the people on the island settled a dispute with the government about the high cost of living. They shut everything down. There was no trash pick up, no restaurants open, no hotels operating, no grocery stores to stock up on food. . . nothing. The boats stopped coming and the island was brought to its knees. As we walk the streets of this French island, everything is normal and I see no evidence of a strike.

It is the next day and time for another island.

I want to keep the identity of this island my personal secret. It is paradise untouched. Jay and Kevin studied the Lonely Planet and find a retreat in the rainforest. Rarely does the Lonely Planet have a “pick”, but they do in this case. Packed and ready to go, we walk the mile or so to catch the catamaran to our next stop.

We step off the boat and bargain for a taxi fare. The roads are steep and cliffs straight down – a nightmare for me. I am glad we contracted with a taxi rather than taking the bus. I don’t know why, but I felt safer.

When we reach the retreat we find we were the only people here. We are shown three rooms and choose a large three room four bed suite for the next two days. There is no glass on the windows, only shutters. We can hear the sounds of the waterfalls just outside the door. A few feet from the door is our personal hot spring and a few feet from that is another hot spring with a cold spring serviced by a waterfall.

Just a short five minute walk from our retreat is Trafalgar Falls.

We walk up a steep hill and onto a viewing deck to see two giant waterfalls. Moving past the sign “climb rocks at your own risk”,

I find enough balance to maneuver over rocks to find pools of hot springs to soak in.

Dinner and breakfast were included for a small price. We were served in an outdoor patio overlooking the rain forest. It reminded us of the hotel where we stayed in Tikal in 2000. We decide that this retreat is in our top three in the parts of the world we have traveled. The other one is in Guatemala in the village of Santiago on Lake Atitlan where we enjoyed bamboo huts and special dinners prepared just for us.

After dinner we soak in the hot spring outside our room and then retreat to our room. There are several geckos climbing the walls – all part of being in a rain forest. We kindly motivate them to move outside and I fall into bed and listen to the sounds of the waterfalls and creatures in the rain forest. Now this is my idea of relaxation! Little did I know that it would not be all relaxation.

On the second day we hiked up the second largest Piton on the island, the Morne Trois Pitons. I either didn’t really listen or didn’t ask enough questions about this little hike. It took six hours to complete and it was, for the most part, straight up. No one actually told me how difficult this little “hike” would be, and truthfully I’m glad they didn’t as I may not have done it.

Unfortunately, I didn’t bring my camera and so I have no pictures to document the summit – but I did do it and Jay and Kevin can testify to it. All the stair climber exercise at the Spectrum Club paid off. Martha (my personal trainer), if you are reading this, I haven’t forgotten our exercise plan.

One review described the hike as “only a journey to be undertaken by very fit hiking enthusiasts or those who want to have a hiking-religious experience. . .The trail is easy to follow except for having to traverse what appears to be a recent rockslide at the entrance to the Valley of Desolation. Some of the steps can be very slippery and it's important to pay attention to footfalls. There are what seem to be tens of thousands of steps. It's an eco-Stairmaster journey. Be warned, but do this if you can.” And I did. Am I awesome or what! Well, maybe that is going a bit too far, but I did feel a sense of accomplishment.

Ok, ok. The name of the island is Dominica; pronounced like Dominoes “Dom-in-ee-ka”.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Happy Easter

I am waiting for a group of Japanese Volunteers to arrive. They will be spending the night here as their next stop. They are walking around the island this Easter weekend. Checking my email, I came across a video sent by a friend. I love the message and wanted to share it with you.

Friday, April 10, 2009

His Dog

I call him smoochie-man; my sons do too. I’m not sure what his real name is and I suppose it doesn’t really matter. Our “relationship” would remain the same either way. You might also call him smoochie-man after reading this post.

He talks loudly and he sounds angry. It’s hard to tell if he is angry because he mostly speaks Kweyol and when he speaks English, I can’t understand that either. He sits on the porch across the street. Sometimes he argues with the neighbors but mostly he seems to argue with no one. He could be arguing with life. He doesn’t work. He has a medical condition.

He lives in a shed behind the house across the street that is abandoned and disintegrating. Recently, he was unconscious and laying in the street. He refuses to take his medication. The ambulance took him to the hospital and two days later he is back to his life sitting on the porch talking loudly to no one in particular.

When I come down the stairs there is a break in his routine. He smiles at me. It’s a wide smile. When he smiles there is life in his eyes. When he smiles, it makes me think about him differently. Who is this man? Does he have anyone who loves him? He must have had a mother who loved him.

There has only been one conversation between us. One day he asked if he could have the empty five liter water jug that I was throwing out. He pointed at it and said, “I put water”. He has no running water in his house, nor does he have electricity. He must carry water to his house from the public facility a block away. I save my empty jugs for him, placing them on the porch across the street when he isn’t there.

When I walk down the stairs, just for a second, there is sadness. But then he kisses the air – smooching his lips when he sees me; hence, his name smoochie-man. I always wave to him and quickly leave. He doesn’t bother me as he’s harmless.

When my sons came to visit, they were awakened by smoochie-man’s ranting in the middle of the night – talking to no one, just being smoochie-man. Then a few days later, Jay woke and said, “Smoochie-man’s dog kept me awake last night”. I tried to explain that he didn’t have a dog, but Jay insisted he did. He said the dog’s behavior was just too much like Smoochie-man’s not to be his.

At first I didn’t understand, but now I do. As I write this, it is three in the morning. The dog is on the porch of the abandoned house across the street…barking. He is barking at no one. He is loud. He sounds angry. Yes, this is definitely smoochie-man’s dog. Humm, I wonder if the dog would make smooching noises if I were to open the door and go downstairs.

Tuesday, April 7, 2009

Saturday Morning

It’s Saturday and I hear the car drive up. It’s my driver. Since I’m a volunteer and cannot be paid, Monroe College has agreed to provide my transportation to the capitol where I teach. Jay and Kevin climb into the back seat of the car for the 45 minute drive to the capitol where they will wait until I’ve finished teaching. Why do you think they would do this? Jet lagged, they get up at 7:00 a.m. No time for coffee - just out the door. The answer is simple. Men are simple. Food. My favorite Rasta Restaurant.

Sunday, April 5, 2009

Traveling Light...NOT

My sons are light travelers. They have traveled extensively and have been to too many countries to count. Passport stamps are worn like badges and it’s always nice to remind them of the pasted “stamp” I received from Japan as neither of them have this type of stamp.

As I look down I notice the small travel backpacks they brought. They pack just enough to be efficient. But there is more. Two more to be exact. Two more bags slung over their shoulders. There had “essentials” to bring: several pounds of See’s Candy, semi-sweet and white chocolate chips, bags of almonds, special toothpaste, a laptop, a wireless router and a projector were just a few things packed in the two extra bags they brought along with their efficient lightweight packs.

They gather their things and we pile into the pre-negotiated taxi to take us to my village. There is simply too much stuff to even think about boarding a bus. Twenty minutes later we are home, the bags are dropped and we are out the door. Although they have just arrived from a grueling fourteen hour flight, they still have a bit of energy to tour my village. They meet Egbert, the Librarian and Darnley, my counterpart, they see the “business center”, and are greeted by every passer-by as we walk through the village. People in the village are curious and so friendly that it warms my heart as we walk through the streets.

We walk to Viege Point and I show them the rock that resembles the map of Saint Lucia. Everyone knows about this phenomenon. They convince me to navigate the rocks climbing down to get a closer view of the sea. It really is a magnificent site. It’s nice to have them here to share the beauty of the island. Our family has a love affair with nature. It was a bond John and I shared and passed on to our children. It always feels special when we share nature together.

When we returned to my house I looked out my back balcony to see if Binta’s was open. If the window in the brown wood building is propped open it is the signal that she's open for business. It is. She makes bakes, salt fish and local juice and I know they will will like this food and will return for this snack every chance they get.

By the way, Kevin told me they would leave the extra bags behind. Sadly for him, this was not the case. There was a coal pot for BBQing, two dresses for Ava, some rum, hot sauce, pencil boxes, purses and various gifts that filled the bags and accompanied my sons on their return flight from California.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Breaking from the Routine

They left today. The house is empty. There were a few tears today, but also a lot of love. My neglected blog is overdue for a post or maybe a few posts. The next few posts will compile my experience over the past few days.

I woke early. I knew there was no possibility of going back to sleep. I made coffee and cleaned my house. Cleaning the house was difficult. I’d already done it and there was no dirt anywhere. Thankfully, making coffee made a small mess that required clean-up. I just needed to keep busy until they came. They would be here at 2:00.

Promptly, at 1:15 I headed out the door and walked up the path to the bus stop. I waited for a few minutes until the Vieux Fort Bus stopped. I opened the door, climbed in the seat and asked the driver to stop at the Hewanorra Airport. He stopped and I handed him the $3EC required for the ride. I walked up to the arrival gate. As I waited, every taxi driver asked me if they could drive me somewhere. I will always look like a tourist here. I picked one of the drivers and negotiated a fee; then I waited some more.

As instructed by the sign above, I stood behind the line . . . waiting. People came through the doors one at a time. Finally, I saw one and then the other. Two of my sons were here. We are so close and it’s been hard to have our family separated. I made a drastic departure from the rule-bound perfect little person behind the barrier and ran around it to the forbidden territory for a sandwich hug.

While we exchanged words and talked about what we would be doing and how nice it was to be together, the taxi driver took charge and loaded their bags into his car.

For the next several days we would cook together, see the sights, visit my new friends and I would teach them things I learned about the country. They vowed to teach me how to eat. My steady diet of peanut butter sandwiches is not a well-kept secret. We explored beyond the beaches of Saint Lucia to the shores of Martinique and Dominica.

I will post our travels in a series over the next days. Oh, by the way, I brought Flat Erika to the airport. My sons brought Flat Autumn, Erika’s sister with them. So, as I tell the story of our fabulous visit, you will likely see our flat friends hidden, not so discretely, in many of the pictures I will post over the next few days.